Monday, February 4, 2013

Make Meetings Less Awful

Meetings are the worst. I mean, my God, they suck. The vast majority of meetings are simply awful. 

But they don’t have to be!

If you’ve ever been in a meeting where you felt like your soul was being sucked out of your body through your eyes, I have a few tips that will make future meetings more tolerable. If you implement them correctly, they might even make some of your meetings useful! Imagine that. 

Write It Down Ahead of Time

Agendas. You should have one. Well, this seems painfully obvious, doesn’t it? But seriously. How many meetings do you attend where there isn’t a single person who knows exactly what you’ll be talking about in the meeting beforehand? 

Here’s a simple solution for making meetings wildly more productive. The person who is in charge of the meeting needs to make an agenda and send it out to all the attendees before the meeting. A full day is great, especially if there are things that people might want to research in preparation for the meeting. Even a few hours is helpful. It’s best if the person in charge reaches out to attendees early to see if they have anything they’d like to see on the agenda. 

The corollary to this is that the meeting attendees must actually read the agenda, understand what will be discussed, and come to the meeting prepared to discuss and make a decision on any of the agenda items they care about. 

And, of course, if they don’t care about any of the agenda items, they probably shouldn’t attend the meeting. 

Another, slightly more spontaneous, method is the box on the whiteboard. We used to do this in engineering meetings at IMVU. Before the weekly eng meeting started, people could add topics they wanted to discuss to a list on the whiteboard. Once the meeting started, someone drew a box around the list. Nothing could be added to the list once we started, and nothing was discussed that wasn’t in the box. As a bonus, it encouraged people to get to the meeting early if they had a topic to discuss. 

Everything Has a Next Step 

Meetings are not open ended discussion forums. They’re not group therapy sessions. Meetings are for making decisions. Every single thing you discuss in a meeting should have an decision and a deliverable. 

Here’s an example. Once, I was in a meeting to talk about a change somebody wanted to make to a product’s design. We sat together for half an hour discussing the types of research she could do to figure out whether the design would work or whether it was small enough just to ship. At the end of about 30 minutes, she announced, “Well, I don’t think we’re going to decide this now.” To which I responded, “Why the hell not?”

Stop having discussions just to have discussions. Refusing to make a decision in this meeting just ensures that you need to have another meeting later, and nobody wants that. Make sure that all agenda items at meetings have outcomes. Sometimes the outcome will be, “Susan is going to go off and investigate these three questions and report back so that we can make a more informed decision.” Sometimes the outcome will be, “Laura is in charge of building a prototype and will pull in whomever she needs to help.” Sometimes the outcome will be, “We’re shipping this damned thing as soon as we leave the room.” I kind of wish that were always the outcome.

The outcome will never be, “Well, we need to think more about this.” The problem with this statement is that it’s too vague. There is nothing actionable about this. Nobody is assigned to do anything, so nothing will really get done, and the next time the point comes up, you’ll have to have the whole conversation over again. Everything from a meeting needs a specific next step and somebody who is assigned to take it. 

Fewer Attendees

Meetings become far less productive after about four people, so whenever possible, keep meetings as small as you can. Obviously you sometimes need to have more folks, but really ask yourself whether everybody needs to be in the meeting, or if somebody would do just as well with a quick report after the fact.

If there are people who routinely aren’t contributing to the meeting in any way - no agenda items, no adding to the discussion, no making decisions, no deliverables after the fact - then they are great candidates for not getting an invitation next time. Presumably you’re paying these people, and I have to imagine there is something more productive they could be doing than sitting in a meeting checking their email.

Every Meeting Has a Leader

Someone has to be in charge of the meeting. Always. 

The person in charge of the meeting has a lot of responsibilities. The leader must make the agenda, keep everybody on track, mediate disputes, ensure that everybody who has a contribution gets to make that contribution, make sure that all the deliverables and next steps are being captured, and follow up on the things that come out of the meetings. 

I was in a meeting once that was led by a particularly ineffective PM. We were discussing what the priorities would be for her product (don’t even get me started on why engineers and designers were discussing this when it was so clearly her job). We were each giving our opinions about what should be done first, and the discussion began to get heated. 

Instead of stepping in and guiding the discussion or just deciding what order we’d build things in, the PM sat back and let everybody scream at each other. The meeting ended with someone in tears (unsurprisingly, this person wasn’t me) and no decision made about prioritization. 

Unless somebody is in charge, meetings just meander and go on for three times as long as they need to with nobody who is willing or able to say, “Right. We’re done here. Let’s go do something productive.” Having someone whose job it is to end discussion and assign tasks makes things go much more smoothly and quickly. 

Besides, if we actually expected some work from the people who call all those meetings, maybe they’d call fewer damned meetings. 

No Broadcast Meetings

I’m going to assume that everybody working for your company is literate. If this is true, please stop having meetings where you read things to them. You’re not in kindergarten. This is not story time. 

I have been to too many meetings where a PM or CEO or somebody else who should know better shows a slide deck and then proceeds to read all the slides to the audience for an hour. 

Here’s an idea: send the deck out the day before. Tell people to read it for themselves and come up with questions. At the meeting, spend no more than five minutes summarizing the most important things about the slide deck (“We made more money this month than last month! Yay!”), then take questions from the audience about the rest of the deck. 

If you are concerned that people will miss critical information because they are failing to read important emails, that’s really something that you need to address separately. I’ve found that reducing meeting times by a few hours a week gives people far more time to read their email or to do something actually productive. 

More Discussions, More Working Sessions, Fewer Meetings

You know what I like more than meetings (besides everything)? I like discussions. Discussions are things that happen between two or three people who are all interested in and informed about a particular topic. They tend to happen in hallways and they often help disseminate important information to the people who need it. 

I also like working sessions, in which a few people all work together on something like a design or code. Working sessions generally involve a lot of writing on whiteboards or pair programming or gathering around somebody’s screen to try different variations of a particular wireframe. Working sessions are better than even good meetings because by the end of the working session, you’re often done with whatever it was you were going to just talk about in the meeting. 

And maybe that’s the most important point here. Meetings are not conducive to DOING. They are conducive to TALKING. Talking is the enemy of doing. By making a few small changes in the way you conduct your meetings, you can turn them into places where things get done rather than just talked about. And that will make meetings suck a whole lot less. I promise.